Theatre: The Mikado

One of the most famous, if not the most-famous work by Gilbert and Sullivan, The Mikado, or, the Town of Titipu opened in 1885. The story of its conception was dramatized in the 1999 film Topsy Turvy.

In a quite fictionalized version of Japan, Nanki-Poo, the son of the Mikado (the Emperor), wanders the streets as a Wandering Minstrel. Meanwhile, a hapless tailor named Ko-Ko has been saved from the chopping block and appointed High Executioner. Instructed to execute somebody before The Mikado returns, Ko-Ko happens upon Nanki-Poo, who is suicidally in love with the maiden Yum-Yum. Seeing an opportunity, Ko-Ko decides to help Nanki-Poo have his death wish and to be with Yum-Yum. Hilarity Ensues.

This work provides examples of:

  • Added Alliterative Appeal: Gilbert really enjoyed alliteration:
    To sit in solemn silence in a dull, dark dock
    In a pestilential prison with a life-long lock
    Awaiting the sensation of a short, sharp shock
    From a cheap and chippy chopper on a big black block!
  • Affably Evil: The Mikado, who is rather calm when he threatens to boil his son's supposed killers in oil.
    "I'm not a bit angry."
  • All There in the Script: Peep-Bo, the third of the "three little maids from school"; and Pish-Tush, who is not so much a character as a singing part.
    • Also Pitti-Sing, the second "little maid" and character of roughly equal prominence to Pooh-Bah.
  • Anachronism Stew: Modern productions tend to be updated with current references, especially prevalent in "The List" song.
    • This version of "Mi-ya Sa-ma" features a refrain comprising most of the modern Japanese mega-corps
    • A recent version with Alistair Mcgowan rhymed Mikado with the supermarket chain Ocado.
  • Asshole Victim: In "I've Got a Little List", Ko-Ko, now the Lord High Executioner, explains that if he's going to execute anyone, he's going to execute people that no one will be sorry to be rid of, crinimal nature notwithstanding. Since many of the examples listed won't make much sense to modern audiences (or may not be very fair by today's standards) the song's lyrics are often revised or updated to feature modern examples.
  • Beauty Equals Goodness: Yum Yum: Beautiful=Good, Katisha: Ugly=Evil. However this trope is lampshaded and parodied as well. Yum Yum ask why she's the most beautiful woman in the whole world "Can this be vanity? No!". As for Katisha, although she is genuinely bloodthirsty and cruel, her loneliness makes her sympathetic ("Hearts do not break, they sting and ache...").
  • Black Comedy
  • Blue Blood
    Pooh-Bah: I am, in point of fact, a particularly haughty and exclusive person, of pre-Adamite ancestral descent. You will understand this when I tell you that I can trace my ancestry back to a protoplasmic primordial atomic globule.
  • Bowdlerize: A couple of N-word references are generally now re-written in "I've got a little list" and "My object all sublime."
    • While in no way giving Sir William N-Word Privileges, he was referring not to actual people of African extraction, but to Minstrel Shows and Blackface actors (c.f. reference to "serenader" and "blacked-like...with walnut juice", respectively), a cheap gimmick that would likely have offended Gilbert, to whom stage acting was quite Serious Business, even if the lyrics were not. Still, use of the term is considered to be in bad taste these days, and there is no real objection to these minor alterations, provided they fit the rhyme and rhythm.
  • The Chew Toy: Ko-Ko.
  • Christmas Cake: Katisha, a very old maid, pines for Nanki-Poo.
  • Cool and Unusual Punishment: "A More Humane Mikado" is made of this.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: You can get the death penalty for flirting.
  • Driven to Suicide: Nanki-Poo attempts to off himself when he thinks he can't marry Yum-Yum, but Ko-Ko has other ideas...
  • Either/Or Title: As is typical of G&S operettas.
  • Evil Sounds Deep: The Mikado and Katisha.
    • Pooh-Bah, likewise, is always cast as a bass or a baritone.
  • Evolving Music: The titular list from "I've Got A Little List". If the words aren't updated to poke fun of current topical references, it's probably only because the director is a major traditionalist. Gilbert himself sanctioned some of this rewriting when he realized that "the lady novelist" on Ko-Ko's list wouldn't always be seen as "a singular anomaly" and let singers suggest their own alternatives. The most popular replacement? "The girl who's not been kissed"! The prohibitionist is also a popular substitution.
    • Less frequently, the Mikado's song receives this treatment as well.
  • Every Man Has His Price: Pooh-Bah would be insulted if you offered him a bribe, and mortified at the prospect of working for a salary. However, as a man of high moral principles, he is grateful for every such opportunity to practice self-abasement.
  • Flanderization: When the Mikado was originally played by Richard Temple in 1885 he was a slightly sinister "suave and oily" reserved monarch with just the very lightest touch of the manical in the background. By the end of the 1920s, however, Darrell Fancourt had turned him into a maniacal tyrant complete with a flamboyant evil laugh. G and S fans are divided as to which was the better approach.
  • The Fourth Wall Will Not Protect You - Played for Laughs: In Lord High Executioner's "I've Got a Little List" song, some versions will have him refer to members of the cast, and possibly the audience as well.
  • Gallows Humor: Plenty. As a main character is the Lord High Executioner, and much of the plot revolves around an execution, quite a bit of it is literal gallows humor.
  • Grande Dame: Katisha.
  • Guilt By Association Gag: Poo-Bah and Pitti-Sing get condemned to death for Nanki-Poo's supposed execution at the hands of Ko-Ko, simply because they happen to be hanging around.
  • Have a Gay Old Time: Several.
    • The "nigger serenader and the others of his race" in Ko-Ko's list song do not refer to a desire for genocide, but rather that if blackface minstrels and similar types of entertainers disappeared, the world would be a slightly better place. Actual performers of colour weren't a thing in middle-class circles until The Twenties.
    • "Dicky-bird, why do you sit / Singing willow, tit-willow, tit-willow?" must have meant something else in the 19th century...
  • Hollywood Medieval Japan: Kind of. The setting was inspired by popular interest in Japanese art, but Word of Gilbert explains that it's a pretext for satire that's actually directed toward contemporary English institutions.
  • Hope Spot: "There should be, of course...but there isn't."
  • "I Am" Song: "If you want to know who we are", "A wandering minstrel, I", "Behold the Lord High Executioner", "Comes a train of little ladies", "Three little maids from school" and "Miya sama". Yes, six of them, quite possibly a record.
  • Inherently Funny Words: The names, some of which seem to combine this with Getting Crap Past the Radar.
    • "I drew my snickersnee..." (a real word dating back to at least 1775, meaning a long knife used as a weapon)
    • Titipu. (Heh Heh....)
  • Insane Troll Logic: How the crisis is averted in the end.
    Ko-Ko: When Your Majesty says "Let a thing be done", it’s as good as done, practically it is done, because Your Majesty’s will is law. Your Majesty says "Kill a gentleman", and the gentleman is to be killed, consequently that gentleman is as good as dead, practically he is dead, and if he is dead, why not say so?
    The Mikado: I see. (Dramatic Pause) Nothing could possibly be more...satisfactory!
  • It Gets Easier: Parodied when Ko-Ko announces that he can't execute a human being just yet; he'd planned on starting with a guinea pig and killing progressively larger, more intelligent animals until he got there.
  • Judge, Jury, and Executioner: Technically, Ko-Ko, although he's upstaged by Pooh-Bah who is the "Lord High Everything Else."
  • King Incognito: Nanki-Poo.
  • Lawful Stupid: The Mikado agrees with Ko-Ko, Pooh-Bah, and Pitti-Sing's explanation that the execution of his son Nanki-Poo was a complete accident, that nobody should have been expected to deduce his true identity through the disguise, and that they were, after all, carrying out the Mikado's orders that somebody be executed...but that the three of them should still be subjected to "something lingering with boiling oil in it" for the crime of murdering the Heir Apparent of Japan. He even regrets having to do so, stating that there is nothing that he could do about it.
    • The Mikado actually says, "That's the slovenly way in which these Acts are always drawn. However, cheer up, it'll be all right. I'll have it altered next session. Now, let's see about your execution will after luncheon suit you? Can you wait till then?" (Implying that Japan has a Parliament, which is in keeping with all of Poo-Bah's British-style state titles.)
  • Listing The Forms Of Degenerates: "I've Got A Little List", which lists all the kinds of people who can be executed without public protest, as does "A More Humane Mikado" in the next act.
  • Local Reference:
    Ko-Ko: The fact is, he's gone abroad.
    The Mikado: Gone abroad? His address!
    Ko-Ko: Knightsbridge!
    • Knightsbridge was the site of a Japanese cultural exhibition around the time the operetta premiered (indeed, its popularity was an inspiration to Gilbert). The reference is often changed to something local to the production.
  • List Song: Ko-Ko's "I've got a little list."
  • The Long List: When they say Pooh-Bah is "Lord High Everything Else," they mean it.
    • The list in "I've Got a Little List" isn't really that little. This is sometimes parodied by having it reach the floor when unrolled.
  • Loophole Abuse: Flirting was made a capital offense, but everyone tries to find a way around that. Notably, this explains how Ko-Ko became Lord High Executioner: He was promoted to the post after being sentenced to death, but since he can't cut off his own head, and since nobody else can be executed until he is, everyone is free to indulge in flirting!
  • Losing Your Head: Provides the quote for the trope.
  • Most Writers Are Male: An item on Ko-Ko's list is "That singular anomaly, the lady novelist."
    • In subsequent productions, this became "the prohibitionist" and "the scorching motorist".
  • Nightmare Fetishist: Katisha sings a whole song about how awesome thunderstorms, tigers, earthquakes, and volcanos are.
    • Many people during the opera express bloodthirsty glee at the prospect of executions (well, executions that are not their own.)
      Katisha: And you won't hate me because I'm just a little teeny weeny wee bit bloodthirsty, will you?
      Ko-Ko: Hate you? Oh, Katisha! is there not beauty even in bloodthirstiness?
      Katisha: My idea exactly!
  • Off with His Head!: Ko-Ko's job duties, although he never actually performs them. Discussed in several songs as well, including "I Am So Proud" and "The Criminal Cried."
  • Patter Song: "I've got a little list."
    • Also, "A More Humane Mikado," which is actually more demanding in the patter. Indeed, Gilbert was seriously considering cutting out this song because it is essentially the same as "I've got a little list." He was talked out of doing it by the chorus (as a body) who argued that it was the Mikado's only solo.
    • The second half of "I Am So Proud."
  • The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything: Ko-Ko is the Lord High Executioner, but never executes anybody.
  • Punny Name
  • Runaway Fiancé: the male version.
  • Shout Out to Shakespeare: Hamlet's reference to Claudius as a "king of shreds and patches" is borrowed:
    "A wand'ring minstrel I,
    A thing of shreds and patches!"
    • In the recent Australian Opera production:
    "Friends, Shogun, Countrymen! Lend me your ears!"
    "Nanki-poo? Nanki-poo? Wherefore art thou Nanki-poo?"
  • Spurned Into Suicide: The title bird in "Tit-Willow." Ko-Ko hints to Katisha that he may do the same if she rejects him.
  • Stylistic Suck: To go with the very As Long as It Sounds Foreign names and various other elements in the play, many productions choose to do the same visually, and decidedly aim left of any sort of cultural accuracy with the costumes and sets.
  • Tenor Boy: Nanki-Poo
  • The Theme Park Version: Of Japanese culture. Of course, even the opening chorus cheerfully acknowledges that it is not intended to be realistic but is drawn from what can be seen "On many a vase and jar / On many a screen and fan."
  • Tomboy and Girly Girl: In some productions of The Mikado Pitti-Sing is played as a tomboy to Yum-Yum's Girly Girl.
  • Wandering Minstrel: Nanki-Poo's disguise
    • Lampshaded in the song "A Wand'ring Minstrel I."
  • Why Do You Keep Changing Jobs?: Being "Lord High Everything Else" creates some internal conflicts for Pooh-Bah:
    Pooh-Bah: "Of course, as First Lord of the Treasury, I could propose a special vote that would cover all expenses, if it were not that, as Leader of the Opposition, it would be my duty to resist it, tooth and nail. Or, as Paymaster General, I could so cook the accounts that, as Lord High Auditor, I should never discover the fraud. But then, as Archbishop of Titipu, it would be my duty to denounce my dishonesty and give myself into my own custody as First Commissioner of Police."